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Sexist traditions lead to transphobia in sports

By Emilie Medland-Marchen, June 18 2015 —

At the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, the American athlete then called Bruce Jenner set a world record in the track and field decathlon event, winning the gold medal. While still identifying as a man at the time, she was dubbed the “greatest athlete in the world” by reporters.

Her good looks and physique made her a posterchild for the U.S. Olympic Team in Montreal and she was arguably the first Olympian to become a media icon in a new era of television-dominated sports — all while being publicly viewed as the epitome of masculinity.

Now, 39 years later, Caitlyn Jenner has made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair. It’s only now that she felt comfortable enough to shed her past and live with her authentic gender identity. For years transphobic media scrutiny prevented transgender athletes from identifying themselves while in the spotlight. If Caitlyn Jenner had revealed herself as a transgender woman 39 years ago, she would not have that famed Olympic gold medal to her name.

Now that Jenner has made her true identity known, issues of equal rights among transgender — people whose gender identities do not match the biological sex assigned to them at birth — and cisgender — people whose gender identities align with the biological sex assigned to them at birth — individuals in professional sports has been in the media spotlight.

The public conversation is littered with transphobic remarks, including the suggestion that transgender athletes should be excluded for the sake of fairness. Misconceptions about transgender individuals, including the effects of gender reassignment surgery and hormone treatments, are ingrained in both official sporting rules and public perception.

The problem stems from a sporting tradition that is inherently gender-segregated. The inclusion of transgender individuals in high-performance sports conflicts with the tradition of gender segregation as a basic categorization of athletes. This model must be reworked to avoid the continued exclusion of transgender athletes.

Sporting culture has favoured male athletes since its inception, as organized sports were originally an attempt to preserve traditionally masculine qualities.

These qualities — physical prowess, competition and aggression — were introduced to sports and encouraged in young boys. Women’s sports were present, but they were segregated from men’s and limited in scope. Women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics until the 1900 Paris Games, and they could only play lawn tennis and golf.

The gendered segregation of organized sports has rarely been challenged. Most think it would be unfair to allow women to compete against men because of a biological disadvantage. Our culture has long encouraged men to harbour physically masculine traits, but this hasn’t been the case for women.

Many attitudes towards female athletes are simply the result of cultural sexism. Women are supposedly less capable as athletes because of their lack of focus and inability to work outside of groups.

Female athletes have, however, proven many times that they are respectable competitors in their own right. But despite their undeniable abilities, there has still been no push to desegregate sporting events.

Gender segregation runs deep in sporting culture, and the use of gender as a basic organizing principle went relatively unchallenged throughout history. But in 1977, American tennis player Renee Richards rose to prominence and changed all of that. Richards has been credited as the first professional transgender athlete to successfully challenge a major sporting organization and win the right to compete. She challenged a rule set out by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) that required all athletes to undergo mandatory sex verification tests in order to compete at the US Open.

Richards, who is transgender, did not pass the test and was banned from competing in the event. She then successfully sued the USTA under the grounds of New York State’s anti-discrimination laws, and won. She competed in the women’s category at the US Open and became the first transgender athlete to ever compete at a major professional sporting event.

Transgender individuals are an increasingly visible section of our society. But their recognition as competitors is still far from equal.

Transphobic ideas prevent trans athletes from inclusion in traditional sports. Intolerance in the sporting community is open and widespread, which makes it near impossible for transgender athletes to feel encouraged and successful.

Those who oppose the inclusion of transgender athletes suggest that the biological differences between men and women’s physicality give transgender individuals either a competitive advantage or disadvantage.

However, according to a study put forth by associate professor Erin E. Buzuvis of the Western New England College School of Law, undergoing hormone treatments drastically reduces the perceived advantages of one’s assigned sex.

After a year of estrogen hormone treatment, a trans woman loses the ability to easily put on muscle — the result of a drastic decrease in testosterone. This similarly decreases any supposed advantage in speed, strength or aerobic capacity.

The effect places a trans woman on the same competitive playing field as a cisgender woman.

Since there is no scientific evidence to suggest that transgender athletes would have an inherent advantage over their cisgender opponents, discrimination against them boils down to prejudice.

The facts are on the side of transgender inclusion, but many continue to insist upon discriminating against these athletes, touting their inclusion in high-performance sports as unfair.

What’s truly unfair is that the IOC insists that transgender athletes undergo sexual reassignment surgery, two years of hormone therapy and receive legal recognition of their transitioned gender before they are eligible to compete. Other professional organizations insist that trans athletes undergo gender tests that are both inaccurate and humiliating.

If Caitlyn Jenner had tried to compete in the Montreal Olympics in 1976, she would have been unable to do so. At the time the issue likely would have been ignored, as there was little public transgender representation.

But the transgender community is becoming more visible, exposing injustices that run deep in the sporting community. Trans athletes continue to be discriminated against while competing, and are demonized for trying to do so.

The tradition of gender segregation in sports is an archaic one that needs to be readdressed. Unless this happens, trans athletes will continue to fight an uphill battle against transphobia. Everyone has a right to compete, regardless of their race, gender or sexuality. This principle of equality is part of the IOC’s code of conduct — yet it seems they themselves are unwilling to follow it.

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